EDMONTON – The unprecedented release of MLA constituency expenses Tuesday revealed Edmonton MLAs ranked first, second and third among Alberta’s political big spenders.
The expenses cover a three-month period beginning Jan. 1, 2013 through March 31, 2013, and provide Albertans’ first look at how provincial politicians spend their constituency money.
Overall, MLAs spent just over $230,000 in their constituencies over that time, an average of $2,700 each.
The expenses are broken down into categories that include vehicle maintenance, travel and hosting expenses. Hosting, for example, cost taxpayers $76,000 in the first three months of 2013, an average of roughly $900.
The top three spots went to Edmonton-Mill Creek MLA Gene Zwozdesky ($11,916.00), Edmonton McClung MLA David Xiao ($9,600) and Edmonton-Millwoods MLA Sohail Quadri ($9,300).
Zwozdesky, now the Speaker of the House, spent $8,000 on a Christmas event at the Maharaja Banquet Hall.
“It’s a Christmas open house for constituents and friends; it’s something I’ve done every year,” Zwozdesky said. “Different MLAs have different ways of connecting with the constituents they serve.
“You develop a rapport with your constituents, and as part of that you reach out to them. … This is my one big expense every year.”
Zwozdesky noted the event is non-partisan and added that each person who comes brings an item for the Edmonton Food Bank and takes part in a 50/50 draw as well. He estimates in the event has raised more than $5,000 for the food bank in recent years.
Xiao could not be reached for comment Tuesday. His expense records include a $6,232.00 receipt for a “McClung Community Event” at Dynasty Century Palace Restaurant on Feb. 24, 2013.
The receipt indicates the bill is for “food, decor, performances.”
Like Zwozdesky, rookie MLA Sohail Quadri spent $7,500 on a Christmas open house.
“It was an event to reconnect with constituents,” Quadri said Tuesday. “Every year we do one big event for the riding, a meet and greet for the people of Millwoods, my constituents.”
Calgary-Hays MLA Ric McIver ranked fourth among the big spenders ($6,500), and Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills MLA Shayne Saskiw of the Wildrose party ranked fifth ($5,800) — the only opposition MLA in the top five.
MLAs who spent less than $500 in their constituencies include Premier Alison Redford, Thomas Lukaszuk, Dave Hancock, Heather Klimchuk, Janice Sarich — all Conservatives — and NDP MLA Rachel Notley.
Lukaszuk spent the least in his constituency of Edmonton-Castle Downs, with expenses totalling $179.49.
Conservative party whip Steve Young spearheaded the move to post MLA expenses online with a motion to the powerful all-party Member Services Committee last Nov. 6.
The posting of MLA travel and hosting expenses with attached receipts makes Alberta a leader among provinces in accountability, he said Tuesday.
The action followed Redford’s decision to post the travel and hosting expenses of all provincial ministers online. In previous years ministers posted only their travel and office expenses, and no receipts were made public.
MLA expenses are submitted quarterly to the Legislative Assembly Office and published online the following month, giving MLAs 30 days to review the expenses before they become public.
The next quarterly expenses, for the period of April 1 to June 30, will be posted at the end of July.
The government initially hoped to have the expenses online sooner, but the logistics — which involved hiring additional staff in the Legislature Assembly Office — took longer than expected.
“It’s a proactive measure to make sure the public is reassured that we’re effective stewards of the dollars we have,” said Young, MLA for Edmonton-Riverview. “It’s just about being open and accountable.”
Most of the expenses for fuel, parking and taxes are mundane, but it is important the public can see them, he added.
“There is nothing salacious here; there’s nothing untoward,” he said. “I would rather just show them rather than defend why I am not showing them.”
Derek Fildebrandt, the Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it’s difficult to judge the amounts involved without scouring the receipts.
“Someone who has (large) expenses, it might – might – be justified and someone with small expenses it might not,” Fildebrandt said.
He also said he would be surprised if there were any egregious expenditures given the review period afforded MLAs. The important thing, he said, is that the expenses are now being made public.
“Our expense disclosure today is the best in Canada. It is a vast, vast improvement over the status quo one year ago,” Fildebrandt said. “Nothing is going to prevent the abuse of expenses like knowing your expenses are going to be published.”
Fildebrandt identified just one improvement, nothing MLAs could provide more disclosure around hosting activities, such as the names of the person the MLA treated to dinner.
With files from KAREN KLEISS, DARCY HENTON AND JAMES WOOD, EDMONTON JOURNAL AND POSTMEDIA NEWS
© The Edmonton Journal, 2013